An Inconsistent Triad about the Father and Jesus

There are a lot of views out there about the Father and Jesus Christ. Trinitarians claim that the Father and Jesus are both truly divine Persons. Others deny this and say that the Father is the only truly divine Person. To say that the Father is the only truly divine Person commits one to either saying that Jesus is the Father Incarnate, or else that Jesus was God’s solely human Messiah (or perhaps something else, like an incarnate angel).

In this post I’m going to discuss three claims that I think anybody who wants to think carefully about the Father and the Son should consider. But first some preliminaries.

Clearing Up Terminology

There’s a couple of terms here that I need to clear up before I go on. The first is the “truly” in “truly divine.” I prefer to use “truly” rather than “fully” because saying two things are “fully” divine can sound misleading to some. How can two things be “fully” divine? Isn’t that like saying that something can be “fully” red and “fully” green at the same time? (Not only that, but when we turn over to Christology, to say Christ is both “fully” human and “fully” divine can sound contradictory as well. See William Lane Craig’s comments on this.)

Now, I don’t think there’s a logical problem with saying the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) are “fully” divine, nor with saying that Christ is “fully” human and “fully” divine. My only point here is that the term “fully” can be misleading, and we can avoid that “put off” by using the adjective “truly” instead.

It is unobjectionable that the Bible teaches that the Father of Jesus Christ is “God” in the highest and truest sense. Whatever it means to be “God,” the Father is surely that. So by “truly divine” I mean that the Father has whatever is necessary and sufficient for the predicate “God” to truly apply (or “to be apt”) of him. To say that the Son (and the Holy Spirit) is “truly divine” is to say that the Son is divine in the same way that the Father is. That is, for the Son to be “truly divine” means that the Son has “what it takes” for the predicate “God” to be apt of him.

I’ve also said that some deny that the Son is truly divine and instead claim that he is God’s “solely human” Messiah. Here I’m thinking of biblical unitarians. I prefer the term “solely” to “merely” there because the latter can sound pejorative unless it is carefully defined. (For one careful way to understand “merely,” see Thomas V. Morris’s classic The Logic of God Incarnate.) And since biblical unitarians deny a two-natures Christology, they think Jesus’ sole nature is his human one. So “solely” in “solely human” seems like a proper one for their Christology, even if Jesus is an exalted human.

In what follows I’ll also use the terms “Person” and “person” (notice the capitalization!). I don’t wish to get into what is necessary and sufficient for something to be a person. Let’s just suppose that there’s something that makes it the case that when the predicate “person” is said of something, that predicate is true (or “apt”) of that thing. Whatever that something is, a Person is a person (again, notice the capitalization) who is truly divine. In other words, for something to be a Person, the predicates “person” and “truly divine” must both be apt of that thing.

An Inconsistent Triad

As I think about the Father and Jesus Christ, there are three claims that I think every view centers around. Those claims are:

  1. There is only one truly divine Person.
  2. Jesus is truly divine.
  3. Jesus and the Father are two persons.[1]

These three claims form an inconsistent triad. That means that if any two of them are true, then the third is false. In the next section I’ll give some basic arguments for thinking that these three indeed form an inconsistent triad. For now, let’s clear up some things about claims (2) and (3).

First, I intend “Jesus” in both claims (2) and (3) to be univocal and to be compatible with a wide range of views on human nature and on the Incarnation. No matter how one conceives of Jesus’ human nature and of the Incarnation, both claims must use “Jesus” in the same sense. I’ll leave the explanation to a footnote, but “Jesus” in both claims doesn’t necessarily refer to a person.[2]

Second, there are many ways that claim (3) can be true. Trinitarians think it is true because they believe that the Father is a Person and that the Son is a Person. Biblical unitarians, who I said above think that Jesus is God’s solely human Messiah, think claim (3) is true because the Father is a Person and Jesus is a person, and that Jesus is not a Person. Others might say claim (3) is true because Jesus is an incarnate angel, or perhaps a human soul who existed prior to his human birth in Bethlehem.

Who Believes What?

To keep the discussion in this post manageable, I’ll focus on only three views about the inconsistent triad I’ve given. Those views are Oneness Pentecostalism, biblical unitarianism, and Trinitarianism.

Oneness Pentecostals accept claims (1) and (2). They believe that there is only one divine Person, and that divine Person became incarnate in (or “as,” depending on who you ask) Jesus Christ.[3] Here’s why Oneness Pentecostals must deny claim (3). Suppose that claims (1) and (2) are true. If claim (2) is true, then Jesus is a Person by definition.

If Jesus is a Person and (3) is true, then both the Father and Jesus are Persons. Then we have to ask if the Father and Jesus are numerically identical Persons (i.e., if Father = Jesus). If they are not (which is what the term “two” in (3) implies), then we have numerically distinct Persons and claim (1) is false. This once again contradicts our supposition that (1) and (2) are both true. So, it seems that if claims (1) and (2) are true, this implies that claim (3) is false.

Here’s another simple argument to establish the same fact. If (1) is true, then any truly divine Person is numerically identical to (or “just is”) the only truly divine Person there is. And if (2) is also true, it follows that Jesus just is the only truly divine Person that there is. Typically Oneness Pentecostals say that the Father is the only truly divine Person there is. Therefore, the foregoing shows that Jesus just is the Father. Obviously, anything that just is itself cannot be numerically distinct from itself; I can’t both be me and not be me at the same time. Premise (3) requires that Jesus and the Father are numerically distinct, since it says they are “two.” So, once again, if (1) and (2) are both true, then (3) must be false.

Biblical unitarians accept claims (1) and (3). On their view, Jesus Christ is God’s solely human Messiah and is not truly divine. Jesus is not a Person, but he is a person. We’ve already established that if claims (1) and (2) are true, then claim (3) is false. By applying a little logic technique called contraposition to this claim, the following is true: if (3) is true, then it is false that both claims (1) and (2) are true.[4] So if (3) is true, either (1) is false or (2) is false (or both). But the biblical unitarian claims that (1) is true. Therefore, (2) is false. (This follows via disjunctive syllogism.) Biblical unitarians are committed to denying claim (2).[5]

Finally, Trinitarians accept claims (2) and (3). Jesus is truly divine, and is therefore a Person. It is also the case that the Father is a Person, and so we have two distinct divine Persons. We can use the same line of reasoning from the last paragraph here too: if (3) is true, either (1) must be false or (2) must be false. But the Trinitarian thinks that (2) is true and must thereby say that (1) is false.

What’s Your View?

Everyone who wants to take what the Bible says about the Father and Jesus seriously needs to make up their minds about the inconsistent triad I’ve discussed. As you read Scripture, which two of those three claims seems more obviously true than false to you? Alternatively, as you think about what the Bible teaches about the Father and Jesus, which of those three claims seems to be the most surprising to you?

As I consider arguments pro and con for any perspective on the Father and Jesus, I ask myself which of the three claims from the inconsistent triad the arguments support. If it turns out I’m right that claims (1), (2), and (3) are in fact an inconsistent triad, I think that you’ll find it helpful to do the same.

In another post I’ll do something similar to what I did here, only with regard to the Holy Spirit.


[1] Less colloquially: Jesus is a person and the Father is a Person (and hence a person) and the Father is numerically distinct from Jesus. This claim is meant to be consistent with views that don’t accept claim (2). So I use the plural “persons” when it is possible that at least one of the referents is not a Person. It does not rule out Trinitarianism, as I’ll go on to explain.

[2] I’ll cover all of this in posts at some point, but here’s the deal. There are some views in Christology called “compositional” views. On one of these views (called the “Modal A” view), “Jesus” doesn’t refer to a Person (or person; hereafter P/person). Rather, “Jesus” refers to a compositional whole that includes a P/person as a “part.” Or perhaps “Jesus” refers to a state of affairs that includes a divine Person doing something. If one wants to take this sort of view, then for “Jesus” to refer to a P/person in claims (2) and (3), one must say something like “that P/person who is (in a predicative sense) Jesus Christ.” But since this is all too burdensome, I’ll simply leave “Jesus” in both of those claims and let those who hold to this sort of compositional model fill in the required locutions to make the claims work. For more on this, see Brian Leftow’s essay “A Timeless God Incarnate.”

[3] I take the difference between incarnate “in” and incarnate “as” in the following way. For the Oneness Pentecostal to say the Father became incarnate “as” Jesus Christ means that the Father is numerically identical with Jesus Christ. This works on an abstract nature view of Christ’s human nature and on a “Model T” compositional Christology. On the other hand, to say that the Father became incarnate “in” Jesus Christ is to accept something like the “Model A” view of compositional Christology that I touched on in footnote 2 above. I think it is arguable that David K. Bernard (a prominent Oneness Pentecostal) is committed to a Model A Christology.

[4] Contraposition occurs when one negates both the antecedent and the consequent of a conditional statement, and then “swaps” those statements’ positions on either side of the conditional (without modifying the conditional itself). For example, the contraposition of P → Q is: not-Q → not-P, where the logical connective “→” indicates an “if . . . then” conditional. In our case, we found that [(1) and (2)] → not-(3), which makes the contrapositive: (3) → not-[(1) and (2)]. And the latter statement is equivalent to (3) → [not-(1) or not-(2)).

[5] I do not mean to imply that only biblical unitarians accept claims (1) and (3). There are a number of groups that accept both of them: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. But I use biblical unitarians as an example because, to my mind, their views are more interesting than other groups that accept both (1) and (3).

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